James Rouse – Urban Visionary

James Rouse in his electric car, circa 1974.
Retrieved on 2/3/2014,  from www.bridgecolumbia.org

James Rouse was a pioneer in urban planning and is best known for his work building some of America’s first enclosed shopping malls and planned communities, such as Columbia Maryland. Born in 1914, he began his career writing FHA loans during the Great Depression. His work with lending eventually lead him to found the Citizens Housing and Planning Association and to his involvement with urban renewal efforts in Baltimore.

His career as a builder of shopping malls began in 1958 when he built Harundale Mall in Glen Burnie, Maryland. Though strip malls were already common, the enclosed mall was unique at the time and is said to be the first enclosed mall east of the Mississippi River. Rouse believed that providing an enclosed mall could create a sort of town center in suburban areas. Ironically, shopping mall development is often blamed for causing the very types of urban decline Rouse had already spent years working to alleviate in areas like Baltimore.

If Rouse’s career ended as a builder of shopping malls, his greatest claim to fame might be that he was the grandfather of actor Edward Norton. Fortunately, Rouse was a visionary and turned his attention towards planned communities during the 1960s. His first project was Village of Cross Keys in Baltimore and he later developed the enormous planned community of Columbia, Maryland which was designed around ten village centers and, according to the 2010 census, has over ninety-nine thousand residents.

His visions for these communities were ahead of their time. Rouse not only pushed for racially integrated housing in areas which were traditionally very segregated but he was also one of the first to decide to fight sprawl through decreasing dependence on cars and encouraging rapid transit and mixed use. “Rouse envisioned at least four vital areas of improvement in his New Town of Columbia: closeness to nature, a color-blind social policy, the best electronic communications, and a form of local transportation that minimized dependence on cars.” He even proposed a car-free village once but had to drop the plan when he could not get financing for the project.

Another key element of Rouse’s vision, originally conceived by Benjamin C. Thompson, was the “festival marketplace” which was essentially the idea of blending traditional European styled marketplace ideas into new market development. Inspired by European markets and places like Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco “The guiding principles are a mix of local tenants instead of chain stores, design of shop stalls and common areas to energize the space, and uncomplicated architectural ornament in order to highlight the goods.”

Rouse wanted to make a place in the city where people would go to shop – but not just to shop. He wanted to design a place where people would go to enjoy their community, to “hang out” and socialize. He wanted to create energized marketplaces where local business owners sold fresh produce, arts and crafts, and household goods, right alongside restaurants and cafés of various cultural varieties and where street performers and artists preformed for the gathering crowds.

These visions of James Rouse contain some interesting contradictions. He seemed to explore the extremes of urban planning and much more in between. After being active early in urban renewal, even gaining the attention of President Eisenhower in doing so, he turned to pioneer in one of the darlings of suburban sprawl and urban decline, the shopping mall. Then, after successfully building some of the country’s most successful mixed-use planned communities, he ultimately turned his attention to focus primarily on the very antithesis of the shopping mall, the festival marketplace.

Locally there are many examples of each of these planning concepts. We have Boise Towne Square mall, the planned communities of Harris Ranch and Hidden Springs, and Bown Crossing is a nice example of a newly designed “festival marketplace” and seems to successfully mimic the organic Hyde Park in Boise’s North End. Each of these clearly delineated planning concepts exists nicely, but separately.

In 2013, the Boise area saw the opening of the Village at Meridian which seems to be an attempt to blend some of the contradictory elements of Rouse’s career. In a press release, Kimberly Blue, the Regional Marketing Director of the developer, CenterCal Properties said, “It’s an amalgam of high-end retail, small local vendors, community focused events, and your favorite value-oriented shopping all nestled into a community gathering place – a ‘Village’.”

As with his vision for the enclosed shopping mall, the Village may help to create a “town center” for a suburban area. Although the Village is in part a strip mall, it blends in the elements of the festival marketplace at its core by creating a sense of place for community activity. The Village has a fountain near a play area for children, café style seating surrounding the open courtyard, and throughout the inner part of the village the automobile is clearly secondary to the pedestrian. The fountain is open for ice skating in the winter and the restaurants surrounding the courtyard are of mixed cultural cuisine and there is even small office and residential development in the area.

Unlike the festival marketplace envisioned by Rouse, however, the Village is dominated by chain stores, big retail, and in the tradition of the shopping mall, the Village is surrounded by a veritable sea of surface area parking in an area which has a heavy dependence on automobiles. Perhaps the Village at Meridian represents a modern synthesis of the planning extremes found in Rouse’s ideas. The Village, along with the nearby Kleiner Memorial Park, may generate enough cultural energy that the residential housing and small office development nearby will thrive. The nearby traditional strip malls may even be gradually replaced by higher density mixed-use development. It may, however, simply be another blow to Meridian’s small downtown which already seems to be struggling to assert itself in the midst of sprawl.

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About Ryan Strong

Ryan is a graduate student at Boise State University, pursuing a masters degree in public administration and a graduate certificate in community and regional planning. He is also a paralegal for the City of Boise, specializing in land use law.